Anyone remotely familiar with New Jersey politics knows it is a machine state.
When Governor Phil Murphy’s administration dared to kick the hornet’s neck and shine a light on potential abuses of the NJ Economic Development Authority by George Norcross, Democratic Party boss, it made quite a few waves felt even outside the Garden State. Within the Democratic Party structure, it intensified if not created a rift between Murphy and Democratic leaders in the state loyal to Norcross. In a largely blue state, the Democrats were divided in a very public fashion and once-stated legislative priorities mysteriously vanished.
There are yet other examples of essentially naked acts of corruption or malfeasance. Senator Bob Menendez, for one, has managed to retain his seat in Congress despite revelations about his impermissible acceptance of benefits, the beneficiary of congressional standards watered down to the point of absurdity. After a stint as governor that saw his popularity steadily decline over his tenure amid scandals and uneven handling of the state’s budget crisis, Goldman Sachs alum Jon Corzine presided over MF Global, a futures broker and bond dealer, ultimately overseeing the company file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and settling with the Commodity Futures Trading Commission to the tune of $5 million for his part in the firm’s collapse. And this is just the Democrats. Don’t even get me started about Chris Christie, Bridgegate, and his abuses of his position.
In short, at every level, New Jersey politics of late has been marked by a rigid adherence to big-money establishment politics and prominent political figures compromised by conflicts of interest. Thankfully, though, the hegemonic power structure of the state isn’t going uncontested.
As Ryan Grim and Akela Lacy wrote about in an article for The Intercept last month, New Jersey’s “cartoonishly corrupt Democratic Party is finally getting challenged.” Referencing the Corzine, Menendez, and Norcross scandals as part of this profile, Grim and Lacy highlight a wave of progressives who not only are challenging entrenched party loyalists, but doing so with serious campaigns, notably in the House. Hector Oseguera’s bid to unseat Albio Sires, a congressional veteran who has been a member of the House since 2006 with little to show for it in terms of legislative achievements or name recognition, is the main focus of the piece.
Oseguera, an anti-money-laundering specialist, isn’t the only progressive name-checked in the article, however—nor should he be. Whether it’s Democratic Party primaries in the House or Senate or even county freeholder races across the state, there are a number of primary challengers championing progressive causes and giving New Jersey voters credible options in the upcoming July 7 primary.
In New Jersey’s fifth congressional district, for instance, Dr. Arati Kreibich, a neuroscientist who immigrated to the United States at the age of 11 with her family, is challenging Josh Gottheimer, a centrist Democrat with a war chest upwards of $5 million who serves as co-chair of the Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan congressional group that seems to cause more problems than it actually solves. In my home district, NJ-9, octogenarian Bill Pascrell faces competition from Zinovia “Zina” Spezakis, the daughter of Greek immigrants with a strong focus on addressing climate change. Cory Booker, fresh off his failed presidential campaign, is opposed by Larry Hamm, a long-time community activist, leader, and organizer. Even Bonnie Watson Coleman, a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, faces a challenge from Lisa McCormick, who previously managed 38% of the vote against Sen. Menendez in his latest reelection bid and, like Spezakis and Hamm, is inspired by the presidential runs of Bernie Sanders.
As Grim’s and Lacy’s report underscores, citing the sentiments of Eleana Little, a candidate for Hudson County freeholder, the progressive left in New Jersey has people. It has grassroots funding/organizing and volunteers phone-banking and sending out postcards. Despite setbacks at the presidential campaign level, there is real energy behind down-ballot candidates fighting for Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, cancellation of student debt, and a $15 minimum wage, among other things. For a movement inspired by the likes of Sen. Sanders, these primary challengers are proving that “Not Me. Us.” is not just a campaign slogan—it’s a mantra.
Can one or more of these candidates win? It’s possible, even if the odds (and fundraising) are against them. Following Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s sensational upset primary win over Joe Crowley in NY-14, progressives and political news media alike are looking for “the next AOC.”
One race being watched closely because of its perceived similarities (not to mention its geographic proximity) is Jamaal Bowman’s bid to unseat Eliot Engel, a 16-time incumbent and high-ranking House Democrat. In case you missed it, Engel was recently caught in a hot mic situation in response to speaking at an event related to the protests following George Floyd’s death, telling Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., “If I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care.” Please, New York’s 16th, vote for Bowman and refuse to stand for that level of apathy.
AOC’s success story is yet an outlier, as numerous progressive challengers to established names in Congress have failed to match her electoral success. This doesn’t mean their efforts were without merit, however. Moreover, the political calculus has changed appreciably since this election cycle began. Obviously, there’s the matter of COVID-19, which has changed so much about our everyday lives, at least for the time being. The ongoing Black Lives Matter protests happening here in the United States and elsewhere, too, have ignited calls for meaningful change. People are fed up, to put it mildly. Whether that sense of outrage translates to increased voter turnout remains to be seen. Then again, if you had told me a month ago that protesters would compel a major city like Minneapolis to consider disbanding its police force and that Confederate symbols and statues of Christopher Columbus would be getting upended, I would’ve stared at you in disbelief. At this moment, everything seems possible.
While not to compare the state of New Jersey politics to protests of that magnitude, along these lines, if you would’ve told me a year ago we’d have a group of progressives this impressive running for office in a state this hostile to primary challenges, I would’ve looked at you sideways. At a time when ordinary citizens are demanding accountability and substantive action from the people meant to protect and serve them, it feels like only a matter of time before people ask for better with their ballots.
A disciplined leader. A woman focused on specific policies that affect people’s lives. Someone who gets results. These are among Will Saletan’s characterizations of Nancy Pelosi as expressed in a largely laudatory recent piece written about her for Slate.
Before we get to the meat of Saletan’s article, titled simply “Trust Pelosi,” there’s the matter of a profile of Speaker Pelosi by Glenn Thrush that appeared earlier this month in The New York Times, of which Saletan’s essay serves primarily as a reaction piece. Thrush shines a spotlight on Pelosi’s stewardship of the Democratic Party, particularly as it intersects with notions of impeachment and taking back the White House in 2020.
As Pelosi would have it, impeachment is not the way to remove Donald Trump from the Oval Office. It’s beating him in the upcoming presidential election—soundly. Otherwise, Trump et al. might contest any Democratic victory as illegitimate. Impeachment proceedings are all but guaranteed to stall in the Senate and the ensuing confrontation would likely energize Trump and his supporters. Rather than risk alienating moderates, Pelosi believes in “owning the center left to own the mainstream” rather than “engaging in some of the other exuberances that exist in [the Democratic Party].” That is, more Affordable Care Act and less Medicare-for-All. Sorry (not sorry), progressives.
What about other elements of the current American political landscape? How does Ms. Pelosi feel about recent events which stand to affect the balance of power in Washington, D.C.? On the increasingly troublesome handling of the Mueller probe/report by Attorney General William Barr juxtaposed with the ever-erratic behavior of the president, while Pelosi finds it testing her commitment to no impeachment, she remains firm on this point, even if privately she thinks he (Trump) has earned this treatment several times over. On the field of potential Democratic challengers to Trump? Pelosi sees Joe Biden’s popularity in the polls as a symbol of voters’ familiarity and trust, dismissing concerns about his 90s-era treatment of Anita Hill. On working with Republicans? Pelosi is for it, notably if it can help Democrats retain or win hotly contested congressional seats.
There you have it. The communicator of a simple message. Tough as nails. Able to keep rogue members of the party from “hijacking” the House Democratic Caucus. Cordial when the occasion arises but willing to clap back (literally) when the circumstances invite such behavior. It’s Nancy, bitch. Deal with it.
This is the backdrop against which we view Saletan’s own analysis on Pelosi’s role as de facto party leader until a presidential nominee is chosen. As he views subsequent criticism by progressives related to her comments in Thrush’s feature, it is “overblown.” Along these lines, Saletan points to several reasons why Pelosi should make “liberals from San Francisco” (as she describes herself) proud:
She’s more “progressive” than you think
If we’re judging Nancy Pelosi simply as a function of her lack of support for the Green New Deal, describing her as a “leftist” or “progressive” is understandably problematic. As Saletan argues, however, her voting record suggests she is more in step with the left than her detractors might otherwise concede. She argues for affordable health care, education investment, environmental protections, equal pay, fair wages, gun safety, immigration reform, infrastructure investment, protecting Social Security, women’s rights, and other tenets of the party platform most people on the left can broadly agree on. Since Donald Trump took office and as of this writing, Pelosi has voted with the president’s position 18.6% of the time, as calculated and tracked by FiveThirtyEight. That’s not dissimilar from someone like Tulsi Gabbard (20.5%) and significantly lower than Beto O’Rourke (30.1%).
For Pelosi, it is more advantageous to defend policy stances that “are well understood and supported” against the other side’s attacks rather than advancing big ideas that might “alarm the other side’s voters more than they inspire yours.” Hence the focus on the ACA rather than Medicare-for-All and on elements of the Act for which polls already show broad support.
She focuses on policies, not ideologies
For Pelosi, the name of the game is connecting with undecided voters and on maintaining, if not further cementing, the Democratic Party’s control of the House. Concerning the former, she makes a point of avoiding belaboring talk about Trump in favor of highlighting the ways Democrats are fighting for everyday Americans, pointing to the tangible benefits of their policy goals (e.g. framing the climate change issue as a jobs issue). On the latter, Pelosi wants to make sure vulnerable Democratic incumbents in “purple” districts are protected, arguing that there aren’t enough deep-blue districts to approach things the way progressives might prefer. After all, if Republicans regain a House majority, the progressive agenda becomes moot, at least in a pragmatic sense.
To this effect, the speaker emphasizes values over movements. As Saletan underscores, for instance, she is much more apt to describe positions in terms of their purported “fairness” than evocative of “socialism,” a term which carries baggage and is used by the right to try to engender opposition and fear. Pelosi’s vision of the Democratic Party is one of an appeal to pragmatic reason and to voters in the center “abandoned” by the GOP.
She seeks to connect to voters’ values rather than demonizing the right
Continuing with the idea that Democrats can own the center Republicans have forsaken, Rep. Pelosi hopes to sway voters who lean Republican but may be critical of Pres. Trump to vote blue, contrasting his record with that of former presidents like Ronald Reagan. In making such a pitch, she stresses the importance of “values” as a practicing Catholic. The environment. Health care. Separating families at the border. These are values issues, ones that Americans who hold deeply religious views can consider as a subset of their faith. Moreover, by making appeals in this way, Pelosi is speaking to those who vote with their gut rather than based on a comprehensive understanding of policies.
She believes in impeachment,but wants the public’s support
To the extent that impeachment proceedings would die in the Senate or would be used to energize Trump’s base, Pelosi approaches such a move with trepidation. On this note, she favors continuing House committee hearings that build on what we know from the Mueller report and other investigations, hoping to turn public sentiment against Trump much in the way Americans turned against Richard Nixon in the wake of months of investigation into his (mis)conduct. Quoting Pelosi in the final moments of his piece, Saletan closes with these thoughts:
On the whole, the speaker has it right. “Public sentiment is everything,” she likes to say, paraphrasing Abraham Lincoln. “With it, you can accomplish almost anything. Without it, practically nothing.” Pelosi schooled Trump in the fight over the government shutdown, and she’s patiently waiting him out in the standoff over who will propose taxes to pay for an infrastructure plan. The liberals of San Francisco should be proud.
While “schooling” Trump may seem an almost dubious achievement—the man’s penchant for malapropisms and spelling errors have become the stuff of legends in the age of Twitter—it seems certain that Pelosi is well-equipped to deal with him. You know, as well as anyone can reasonably deal with a man-child like Trump.
Anecdotally speaking, in my online discussions and in-person Democratic club meetings, Pelosi’s stature is that of a female legislative icon beyond her historic identity as the first (and only) woman to serve as Speaker of the House. Despite misgivings about her leadership in advance of this Congress, she has weathered that storm and is apparently not going anywhere anytime soon. For most rank-and-file Democratic supporters, that’s at least “somewhat favorable.”
The thrust of Will Saletan’s and Glenn Thrush’s articles may well agree with what they believe personally. In Saletan’s case, it is an opinion piece, so we would envision his views and Nancy Pelosi’s align somewhat closely. In Thrush’s case, this is a report that cites Pelosi directly, so the author’s personal inclinations are less clear, though there is very little if any pushback against her assertions within.
In a day and age in which memes are accepted as fact and in which publications are bidding to outdo one another in terms of clicks and exclusives that break before anyone else, though, the sources of the information we consume should be considered for potential bias. Slate, though fairly liberal among mainstream news outlets, has existed under the Washington Post banner since its acquisition in 2004. The New York Times, irrespective of accusations on the part of Donald Trump and other conservatives, also tends to promote an outlook that falls left of center.
Even so, these companies are part of a network of news sources backed at least in part by money linked to major corporations or wealthy patrons. The Washington Post, as of 2013, has existed under the ownership of Nash Holdings, a limited liability holding company established by Amazon CEO and founder Jeff Bezos. The New York Times is publicly traded and controlled by the Sulzberger family by means of two classes of shares, of which Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim Helú is the largest single shareholder. Journalist Matt Taibbi notably criticized the Times‘s favoritism of Hillary Clinton over the grassroots-oriented candidate Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic Party presidential primary. These purveyors of news may be left of cable news conglomerates and are certainly far removed from the likes of Breitbart, The Drudge Report, Glenn Beck, and InfoWars, but they still may reflect more of a centrist or elitist bias than their readers, hungry for content and subject to their own biases.
In the case of Nancy Pelosi, access to a politician of her stature and a desire to appeal to a readership fueled by anger at the president likely informs the essentially congratulatory tones of these features. With all due respect, Saletan acknowledges that Pelosi’s strategy “is open to dispute.” For one, the praise of Ronald Reagan and other Republican leaders of yesteryear is fraught with complications; ask communities of color ravaged by the war on drugs or the LGBTQ community ignored during the peak of the AIDS crisis and see if they’re as charitable in their recollections.
There’s also the matter of not wanting to criticize Trump for fear of antagonizing those who voted for him, a tactic which Saletan indicates arguably plays better in deep-red districts than as a one-size-fits-all methodology. Other possible points of contention are her adherence to centrism in the hopes of warding off moderate Republicans challenging for House seats (“that might be playing it too safe”) and her harping on the likelihood that Trump will contest the results of the 2020 election if they go against him (Saletan suspects “she’s using that scenario as a scare tactic to motivate her troops”). Trump and his ilk routinely turn molehills into mountains or simply fabricate those mountains entirely. This sadly might be an inevitability.
Speaking as someone who ascribes to a progressive mindset, my biggest concern is that Speaker Pelosi seems to both overestimate the American people’s ability to handle worsening economic and environmental trends and underestimate her party’s supporters. Regarding her dismissal of Medicare-for-All, the Green New Deal, and other progressive policy goals, Pelosi’s positions belie the seriousness of various crises. We are in the midst of a climate crisis. Americans are saddled by medical, student, and other forms of debt. Income and wealth equality are widening, with far too many people in this country living in poverty or close to it. Defending the ACA and embracing incrementalism when warning signs abound conveys the sense you don’t feel the same pinch your constituents do, inviting accusations of being an out-of-touch elite, even if exaggerated.
As for the notion Democrats should prioritize policies “that are well understood and supported,” this assumes voters are not especially well-informed about or desirous of progressive policy designs. Some clearly are not. On the other hand, if the popularity of younger progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is any indication, these ideas are not far outside the mainstream and voters, particularly young voters, are quite knowledgeable about them indeed. I keep thinking back to the episode not long ago in which Dianne Feinstein lectured a group of young environmental activists about political realities and pointed to her legislative record. Thank you for your service to this country, Sen. Feinstein. But this is serious business and if you’re not going to lead on the subject of climate change, you need to get out of the way of those who can and will.
In all, what strikes me about Nancy Pelosi’s strategic mindset and that of other establishment Democrats is that they appear content to play not to lose rather than swinging for the fences, walking on proverbial eggshells in Donald Trump’s shadow. That didn’t work in 2016, prompting one to wonder what party leadership has learned exactly since then.
To be clear, I think Pelosi’s experience and shrewdness are assets in connecting with voters. I would tend to agree that it’s useful if not essential to be able to pitch parts of a platform in different ways to different voters and voting blocs. For better or worse, not everyone is swayed by considerations of morals and presidential ethics. That said, I’m not sure her deprecation of her party’s “exuberances” convey the right message. Not when aggressive centrists like Josh Gottheimer are making House Democrats and the party look bad by extension. But sure, keep siding with him over Ilhan Omar.
In Nancy we trust? On many issues, yes. But I have my doubts—and chances are you do as well.
I don’t always agree with Nancy Pelosi. Neither does Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But I think all three of us are in accord on the point that moderate Democrats should be wary of Republican attempts to use motions to recommit to divide the party, and this to me speaks volumes.
First, a little backdrop: what the heck is a motion to recommit? According to an archived page on the official House of Representatives website under the banner of the late Democratic representative Louise Slaughter:
The motion to recommit provides one final opportunity for the House to debate and amend a measure, typically after the engrossment and third reading of the bill, before the Speaker orders the vote on final passage. The motion is the prerogative of the Minority party and in many cases constitutes the Minority’s one opportunity to obtain a vote on an alternative or a proposal to improve the measure. In the case of a bill or a joint resolution, the Rules of the House prohibit the Rules Committee from reporting a special rule that denies a motion to recommit with instructions.
As this synopsis goes on to explain, there are two types of motions to recommit: those with and without instructions. In the case of the former, when the motion is adopted, the measure is reported back to the House with the instructed amendment, the House votes on the amendment, and if it is adopted, then the measure goes through engrossment (preparation of an official printed copy of a measure as it has been modified), an additional reading, and final passage. In the case of the latter, the motion, when adopted, sends a piece of legislation back to committee without a final vote. Scintillating stuff, I know.
Frequently, motions to recommit have been simple matters of procedure. The minority party seeks to modify a bill, party-line votes occur, end of story. Increasingly of late, however, motions to recommit are being weaponized by the minority party—in this case, the Republican Party—to sway centrist Democrats on “wedge” issues, notably those from what are considered “swing” districts.
This brings us up to speed and to the events of the past two weeks or so. Ed Kilgore, writing for New York Magazine, penned an article about a recent flare-up of tensions within the Democratic Party over one of these last-minute motions that actually got added to a bill as an amendment. The crux of the legislation was devoted to closing the gun show loophole. Seems fair, sensible. The problem arose when 26 Democrats voted in favor of a motion to recommit that added language instructing law enforcement officials to notify ICE if an “illegal immigrant” tries to purchase a gun.
For someone like Ocasio-Cortez, who made “abolish ICE” part of her campaign platform and who represents a district very sensitive to the Trump administration’s more hostile tone toward immigrant populations (the use of the phrase “illegal immigrant,” in it of itself, is a sticking point), having to vote on a measure that essentially makes her choose between gun safety and immigrant rights is understandably awkward. For Speaker Pelosi, an establishment Democrat charged with keeping the peace in her house, the breaking of ranks is, if nothing else, a bad look for the party. The whole episode feeds into a media narrative desperate to sow the seeds of conflict between and within the major political parties (and sell subscriptions).
For the moderate Democrats who voted “yea” on the motion to recommit, however, they present their own grievances, buoyed by the objections of someone like AOC. Ocasio-Cortez, for one, represents a non-competitive district. Xochitl Torres Small, conversely, represents New Mexico’s 2nd Congressional District, which went for Donald Trump in the 2016 election by more than 10 points, and she is cited within Kilgore’s article as bristling at AOC’s criticisms. As these centrists would aver, it’s easy to preach party unity when you’re sitting in deep blue territory but it’s a horse of a different color when you hail from a locale in which border security is a more contentious and relevant topic.
Making matters worse is the insinuation that critics of Democrats who voted with Republicans on motions to recommit could face primary changes if they continue to step across the aisle in bad faith. Kilgore references a Washington Post article on this same set of events, in which one of Ocasio-Cortez’s spokespeople, Corbin Trent, is quoted as saying Democrats who side with Republicans “are putting themselves on a list.” That remark, in its vagueness, has been interpreted as a warning to these moderates that progressives will support primary challengers looking to unseat them in upcoming elections. As you would expect, this news was not particularly well-received.
Josh Gottheimer, co-chair of the centrist Problem Solvers Caucus, called this purported list “Nixonian” in its applications while maintaining that the Democratic Party needs a “big tent” to remain in control of the House. Ocasio-Cortez later clarified that she isn’t threatening to primary Gottheimer or anyone else and that she simply was frustrated at being compelled to vote for a pro-ICE provision within the gun show loophole bill in light of the last-minute changes and the short timetable for a vote. Her “list” comment, if anything, was a heads-up to Gottheimer and other Problem Solvers that they ran the risk of being added to a list of potential primary challenges or siding with Republicans—not that she would be the one leading the charge.
I have become familiar with Josh Gottheimer through my participation in political activism groups based in and around New Jersey’s district, and speaking as a direct observer, I find his whole involvement with the motion to recommit and his subsequent comments to be disingenuous and made in poor taste. It’s true that Josh’s district is a more competitive one. For him to lobby criticisms while serving as co-chair of a Problem Solvers Caucus that, of late, has seemingly caused more problems than it has solved—and which refuses to provide a list of its members even when directly asked—frames his own pleas for party unity in an odd context.
This is especially so when he has spent the better part of this past week serving as the pro-Israel lobby’s attack dog/shameless defender. With all the time and energy spent admonishing Ilhan Omar after she wished to advance a legitimate conversation about the influence of lobbyist money in American politics, he could be, you know, actually holding a real town hall to interact with and field the concerns of his constituents or, say, taking a meaningful stance on immigration and Pres. Trump’s hateful rhetoric. But yours is a swing district. I forgot that means you can’t be held accountable, Rep. Gottheimer.
Ed Kilgore has these parting words for Nancy Pelosi and the rest of the House Democrats regarding the strife brought out about by party members breaking ranks:
These tensions create some serious problems for Nancy Pelosi, who must cater to every faction in her caucus. One option for her is simply to impose party discipline and insist moderates bite the bullet on cleverly designed Republican poison-pill amendments. As she and others pointed out in the caucus meeting, Republicans managed to vote down similar Democratic gambits routinely when they controlled the House, adopting a “just say no” party line on all procedural motions from the other side of the aisle.
Alternatively, Pelosi may have to rethink how much value there really is for her caucus and party in “messaging” bills like the gun measure, which is about as likely to be considered in the Republican-controlled Senate as a bill to double Planned Parenthood’s funding. A symbolic gesture toward an important if presently unachievable goal like better gun regulation is a lot more effective if Democrats can agree in advance not to let themselves get distracted by Republican hijinks. The last thing they need is a public “struggle for the soul of the Democratic Party,” with media hounds eagerly feeding on every morsel of conflict.
In a sense, I agree with Josh Gottheimer that the Democratic Party needs to be able to accommodate differences of opinion and nuanced arguments across issues. While a large degree of consensus is to be expected keeping the party’s ideals in mind, positions evolve and debates can be had. In some cases, deviations from the party line can be cheered rather than bemoaned. They reveal a capacity for independent thought and a willingness to stand apart in a substantive way. It’s something I wish more congressional Republicans would do instead of trading in their backbones for MAGA hats.
These sentiments presume, of course, that these motions to recommit and other “debates” are made in good faith. More and more, however, the evidence suggests this is not the case or that matters which have no meaningful point of compromise are approached with a spirit of capitulation. Kilgore is correct that the gun show loophole bill is the kind that is all but dead on arrival in the Senate. The best the GOP could hope for was to get ICE language added to the bill and to cause a ruckus among the Dems. If the back-and-forth between Gottheimer and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and Nancy Pelosi’s public call to order are any indication, Republicans succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. The Democrats, in this instance, looked weak—over a procedural vote, no less. House Democrats should be smarter than that.
Additionally, on ICE specifically, the Democratic Party needs to understand that defections under the guise of working within “political realities” undermine the value of the party’s messaging as a whole in its appeal to diversity. How does one reconcile putting women and children in cages and having people die while in federal custody with respect for communities of color as a function of humanity as a whole? Why is this even treated like a debate? It’s cruel and immoral, and Democrats should not be afraid to condemn these crimes.
Besides, it’s not as if concerns about border security require such barbarism. Even if these fears are overblown, there are ways to address the immigration issue without inhumane conditions or a costly wall and while holding relevant federal agencies accountable. Staying silent or treading lightly in the name of political expediency only invites further attempts by the Republican Party to chip away at the Democrats’ unified front.
Even with “messaging” bills, votes matter, especially in a day and age when information is so visible and so rapidly spread. Moderate Democrats should reconsider their votes on motions to recommit made in bad faith—and reflect on their commitment to their party’s ideals in doing so.
Note: This post was first published before any meetings between Nancy Pelosi and the Problem Solvers Caucus. The two sides have reportedly cut a deal on proposed rule changes.
I’m not the biggest fan of Nancy Pelosi personally. Even I, though, have to balk at the recent attempts to challenge her prospective leadership as Speaker of the House.
In particular, a no-vote of confidence from members of the Problem Solvers Caucus seems to be, well, a problem, or at least a distraction. The Problem Solvers Caucus is a bipartisan group of representatives that seeks to create cooperation among members of both major parties on key policy issues. In practice, it is a centrist committee.
For the purposes of this challenge’s to Pelosi’s authority, Jim Costa (CA), Vicente González (TX), Josh Gottheimer (NJ), Daniel Lipinski (IL), Stephanie Murphy (FL), Tom O’Halleran (AZ), Kurt Schrader (OR), Darren Soto (FL), and Tom Suozzi (NY) are the Democrats who are making their support contingent on the eventual Speaker’s acceptance of certain rule changes.
As Gottheimer, caucus co-chair, identified, these #BreaktheGridlock changes involve 1) legislation going to the House floor for debate and a vote when co-sponsored by at least three-fifths of Congress, 2) an amendment to legislation getting a debate and vote with at least 20 Democratic and 20 Republican co-sponsors, and 3) each member of Congress being allowed to introduce a bill for debate and vote on a committee he or she serves on once a congressional term.
In principle, these proposals designed to “break the gridlock” are worth considering in the name of procedural reform. The timing and very public nature of this threat to Pelosi’s leadership, however, as well as the take-it-or-leave attitude accompanying it, are concerning. What’s more, when considered alongside existing feelings that the Democratic Party needs to be taken in a “new direction,” the overall picture is one of party discord at a time when gains in the House should perhaps have the Dems thinking more harmoniously.
What’s additionally striking about this turn of events is that it has come at the behest of members of a caucus that tout their bipartisan credentials, not long after Pelosi herself vowed the House would move toward greater bipartisanship. Of course, this in itself drew criticism elsewhere. That Nancy Pelosi—damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t.
Amid a spirit of partisan acrimony and congressional ineffectiveness, bipartisanship would seem to be exactly what we’d want or need. Everybody gets along, Congress actually gets meaningful things done—sounds good, right? The problem with bipartisanship as an ideal, however, is that it may be overrated, if not counterproductive.
Lew Blank, editor-in-chief of The Outsider, an independent, student-led online publication devoted to telling stories from outside the mainstream media bubble and the two-party binary, wrote in a detailed post last year (with helpful charts and graphs!) about how bipartisanship is, well, a myth. Firstly, there’s the matter of how the goal of bipartisanship tends to reduce matters to “debates” in the name of balance when there should be no room for debate. Blank starts his article thusly:
What America considers a debate is pretty messed up. Apparently, the existence of climate change is a “debate.” Allowing 33,000 Americans to die every year because they can’t afford health care is a “debate.” Continuing to arm ISIS and Al Qaeda in Syria is a “debate.”
And yet, there’s one singular issue that seems to read “case closed” in the minds of millions of Americans, both red and blue: bipartisanship. Somehow, we have wound up in a world where saying “we should stop literally arming terrorists” is an opinion, but lauding the glories of bipartisan politics is unbiased and impartial.
On top of this, and more to the point, finding bipartisan legislative solutions tends to involve compromises that skew to the political right. As Blank characterizes this relationship, centrist Democrats often strive for policies that are “both (a) conservative enough to get Republican support, and (b) liberal enough to like.”
Viewing Obama-era policy directives through this lens, however, very few, if any, of them actually ticked both boxes. Either they were too conservative for liberals to like (e.g. extending the Bush tax cuts), too liberal for conservatives to pass or support after Obama was gone (e.g. the Paris Agreement), or neither very liberal nor supported by the GOP (e.g. military expansion that still saw Obama’s critics calling him “soft on terrorism”). The wrench in compromising and finding a middle ground, as many on the left might expect, is the uncompromising position Republicans take on issue after issue. In Blank’s words, their failure to “support anything with even a tinge of progressivism” means trying to bend over backward to appease them is a non-starter.
The true solution for Democrats, then, is to run to the left. Only from this position can they negotiate and get something close to what they really want. Per Blank:
This is compromise 101. If you get an offer of $50 for a painting and you ask for $60 instead, you may come away with a solid $55. If you go the “moderate” route and raise to $51 instead, you’re missing out on a potential four dollars.
What’s more, the statistics seem to bear out that running further to the left is the better strategy from an electoral perspective. How else to explain the enduring popularity of someone like Bernie Sanders and the lingering unpopularity of someone like Hillary Clinton? Of course, popularity and social media fervor don’t necessarily equate to votes cast. Then again, capitulation is not a very sexy approach to attracting voters, especially in the context of a general election, so why not go for the gusto?
Noting the refusal of Republicans to yield on policy matters in recent years, examples of bipartisan cooperation on the part of moderate Democrats might actually be more disconcerting than anything. As alluded to before, increased military spending has continued to be approved by Congress despite the cost of human life and despite the notion this focus on “defense” dwarfs the spending on domestic programs the GOP claims we can’t afford. The Dodd-Frank rollback aided and abetted by “Blue Dog” Dems like Gottheimer also jumps to mind as one of those points of accord between parties that should inspire fear more than confidence. Coming together is all well and good when we’re paving the road to another economic collapse.
For any number of reasons, therefore, bipartisanship may not be all it’s cracked up to be. Not the least of which is, if you ask this writer, that at 14 letters, the word bipartisanship is already too long.
As with “civility,” calls for bipartisanship are only as good as the individual or individuals making such an appeal. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell caught flak for an op-ed for FOX News in which he asked whether the Democrats will work with Republicans, or “simply put partisan politics ahead of the country?” The irony was not lost on, er, pretty much anyone who knows McConnell. The Republican senator from Kentucky has been the proverbial poster child for partisan obstructionism in recent years. Accordingly, the prevailing response seemed to be “Merrick Garland” and some sort of invective or gesture not printable in this space. How’s that for bipartisanship, Mr. McConnell?
Nancy Pelosi, in her stated preference to work in a bipartisan manner within Congress and with President Trump, may have been similarly full of shit—at least outwardly. That is, she may genuinely wish to work in a partnership with Trump and the GOP, but knowing his and his party’s demands, this is functionally impossible. In this respect, Pelosi’s conviviality appears to be a show of rationality and goodwill in the face of a White House that lacks it so as to make her and her party look more reasonable. Even in jest, however, the sentiment is one whose sharing has the power to boil progressives’ blood.
I’m a resident of New Jersey’s ninth congressional district, but I’m a friend of a number of progressive-minded residents of the fifth where Josh Gottheimer calls home (by crossing from one town into the next, you’re entering into a different district). And I can tell you this much: while they’re plenty relieved to have someone like Gottheimer rather than someone like John McCann or his predecessor Scott Garrett in office, they’re disappointed in this display of brazenness from the co-chair of the Problem Solvers Caucus.
This isn’t the first time he’s disappointed them either, whether it’s because he voted with the GOP or because he has avoided making his stance clear so as to not risk a backlash. On one hand, there’s the political “reality” that he represents a district which has its clearly blue and red segments, so his bipartisan mentality may have its advantages.
On the other hand, as a Democratic supporter, it makes you wonder what lines someone like Gottheimer won’t cross. A number of these friends either voted to endorse him or campaigned for him in the midterms. Their reward? Little, if any, expressed gratitude and an overt attempt to undermine their party’s leadership. It should be no surprise that there’s already talk of wanting a primary challenge to Gottheimer’s seat in the House. For my part, I think all incumbents should be challenged as a matter of procedure and because it makes for better party platforms, but I sympathize with this desire.
Though it may go without saying at this point, there’s a financial aspect to this effort to contest Pelosi’s leadership heretofore unmentioned. As Ryan Grim of The Intercept reports, political/corporate consultant Mark Penn and No Labels, a bipartisan group funded by wealthy donors, are the driving force behind this revolt. Gottheimer and Penn, described by Grim as “one of the most toxic and notorious partisan warriors the Democratic Party has produced in the past three decades,” have a history together dating back to the Bill Clinton White House.
Members of no Labels, described by critics as “aggressively” centrist, have had an ax to grind against Pelosi for some time now. While they may have softened their position to make her Public Enemy #1—when in doubt, Bernie Sanders makes a convenient target—that ill will has evidently lingered.
There’s ample room for debate whether or not Nancy Pelosi, a seeming epitome of the “old guard” of Democratic Party leadership, is the right person for the role of Speaker of the House come January. Certainly, though, this attack on her from the Problem Solvers Caucus is one to be disparaged, as their insistence on “breaking the gridlock” purely as a function of their moderate ideology rings hollow.
In all, the Democrats’ commitment to bipartisanship without any show of good faith from the Republican Party is a questionable tack to take. It’s bad negotiating on top of poor electoral strategy, and its effectiveness as a tool to rally the base is similarly suspect. With the Dems needing a big win in 2020 to continue their momentum, that’s a problem.